CLIFFTOP — Eighty-seven-year-old fiddler Ralph Roberts says he is from the "geographic center of West Virginia" in Frametown, Braxton County, but he's also the type of old-timer who is the heart of the Appalachian String Band Music Festival at Camp Washington-Carver.
Everyone in the section of campground called "geezer hill" knows Roberts.
Massachusetts native Don Borchelt pointed out his camp — "He's the real deal. He didn't go to Nashville."
Tuesday, Roberts was under a canopy with several other fiddlers. They sat around a table with two oil lamps. He patiently bowed while Barry Carlton of Elkin, N.C., sat and copied him, slowing learning a new tune.
Roberts, a third-generation fiddler, is a fountain of the old tunes and variations many who come to the festival hope to learn from the older generation.
"Some tunes I know and some I don't," he said humbly.
Most often musicians gathered at the festival can find at least one tune in common. Don and Jean Wisniewski of Waterford, Pa., had just met Jim Marks and Ron Weigert, both of Florida. Despite never playing together before, they worked out a quick rendition of the classic tune "Li'l Liza Jane" with bass, guitar and a pair of fiddles.
Many of the more than 3,000 musicians who attend the festival are self-taught or have learned from a mentor, so songs and variations must be passed down like they were 100 years ago — by ear and person to person.
"If you can hum it, you can play it," Don explained.
Roberts said the best fiddle players are those who learn from others, but his grandfather passed down additional advice: "My grandfather told me if you want to play the fiddle, you pick it up and you bow, and you bow, and you bow, until you're about ready to mash it over somebody's head. Then you've finally made a sound."
Despite their age, Roberts and his wife Charlie always attend the festival and camp out 10 days, playing music with whoever stops by the camp each night. She laughed and called it "playing house."
Charlie explained that Roberts, although he learned the fiddle young, stopped playing for nearly 20 years after he returned from the Korean War. He is both a U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force veteran. Now he simply says "it feels good" to be playing.
"The more you play, the more you see how much you don't know," said Don Wisniewski during a break between songs.
"But the level of enjoyment is always increasing," added Weigert.
Fred "Tomato Freddie" Swedberg of western Massachusetts sat at his campsite behind a table piled with all varieties of heirloom tomatoes. For the past 10 years, he has attended the festival, passed out his heirloom seeds and accepted new varieties or samples of his own crosses from attendees.
More than 1,000 campers were already set up Tuesday waiting for official festival activities to begin Wednesday, with anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 expected this week.
The grounds become a music village.
Music from small encampments surges and wanes across the mountain top. At times the thump of a bass pushes through, but mostly it is the piercing cry of the fiddle heard above all else.
"Some of the older people here know mountain tunes that nobody else has ever heard," said Tomato Freddie. "It is like heirloom tomatoes in that some of these tomatoes were raised by one family in one little holler in West Virginia. The guys in their 80s and 90s are a treasure of these tunes. We call them crooked tunes. They have little things, variations, that make them different."
"Those are the tunes you only hear here. Without festivals like this, that music is lost. It's gone," he said.
He explained that each jam circle is a learning opportunity. Younger players just starting out hear a tune repeated until they catch on, song after song.
Swedberg played mainly gospel until progressive bluegrass banjo player Roger Sprung brought him to the festival about 10 years ago.
"I got so hooked on this music. It gets under your skin and into your soul," he said.
That's why so many started young and have never stopped playing. Borchelt is in his 60s and began playing when he was 16 years-old.
"When I brought my first banjo home, my mother took to her bed and wailed. They were fans of the Grand Ole Opry and square dancers. That's where I got interested in fiddle tunes, but that didn't mean she wanted me to play a banjo," he shared.
Borchelt and a group of banjo players sat under a banner that read "Banjo Hell." They'd just finished eating lunch and were sharing a wealth of banjo player jokes.
His banner, he explained, is a reference to a Gary Larson cartoon that's had a lot of play in the banjo community. In it, the devil shows a symphony conductor what hell is going to look like — a room full of banjo players.
Many campsites have flags or banners to help friends reconnect year after year.
He said the festival is a homecoming for him.
"We try to camp in the same place each year and see the same people. We try to remember what tunes they liked, although the older I am, the harder it is to remember them all," he added.
The 27th Appalachian Spring Band Music Festival runs through Sunday.
Admission is $15 for adults and $10 for seniors and youth 17 and under each day. Children 5 and under are free.
For more information about the festival, including directions, camping and a full schedule of events, visit www.wvculture.org/stringband or call 304-438-3005.
Follow The Register-Herald's coverage of this cultural event. Check out Friday's paper to learn more about one of West Virginia's own fiddle masters, Saturday's edition to learn more about the art of basket-weaving and Sunday's edition for a glimpse of the flat footing tradition at Clifftop.
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